Chaz: Dancing with the Enemy

Drishti Trivedi, Jan 30, 2024 in Gandhi 3.0, 2024

[Below is Chaz's stirring share from the 'Stories of Heartivism' Community Night at the Gandhi Ashram.]

It's good to see you all. It's an honor to be here on this holy ground with you holy people. Jayeshbhai, Nipunbhai, everyone here, Thank you for all that you're doing in the world. When I was a kid, I loved to dance. I danced freely without inhibition, not worried about who was looking. And, my parents, when we would have guests over after dinner, they would summon the entertainment, which was me. And I would come out and I would dance for our guests. I don't dance so much anymore. I think as I got older, I became a little more nervous about what people would think about me. My knees got bad. And I don't know, sometimes I fear I've lost the love - that I don't have it in me anymore.

In 2005, a terrible hurricane, called Hurricane Katrina, hit the southern part of the United States. And it devastated a city in the southern part of our country called New Orleans, where close to 2000 people lost their lives. It was the costliest hurricane in the history of our country. 80% of the city was underwater, and worst of all, most of the lives who we lost could have been saved. But the neighborhoods that felt it the most were where black and brown and poor white people lived. And leadership deferred the repairs to infrastructure that could have saved those lives. People over here in the high ground didn't care as much about people over there in the low ground.

As was said earlier, I work at a university and I've got wonderful students, and in so many ways, they're my teachers. And a group of our students, after the hurricane, decided that they wanted to go down to New Orleans to help rebuild. But these weren't just any students. It was a mixture of Jewish students and Muslim students. And a few of them were in dialogue, wondering about ways that they might learn from each other and maybe do something together. But they were nervous about this because the week before we flew down to New Orleans, (and I had the great honor of accompanying them on this trip) a Palestinian individual broke into a yeshiva and killed eight individuals in there. Because the week before, Israelis killed 100 people in Gaza. And the students wanted to engage one another, but they felt so much, and they didn't think they could just have a conversation with one another without the pain getting in the way. And so they had this idea that perhaps if they can serve together, maybe something beautiful might happen. And so they came down to New Orleans and they began to clean up and they worked on repairs, and they began to paint walls. And beautiful things were happening, but the tension was still there.

We went and visited Juma Prayer Services on Friday and then had Shabbat services that night. But they were still just guests visiting. They weren't connecting. New Orleans - the city we were in is known for its music. It's known for wonderful food and jazz music and dancing. And so that night the students wanted to go and hear some live jazz music in New Orleans. And so we sat there and the Jewish students sat together and the Muslim students sat together. And I remember sitting thinking, this isn't working.

And the band played on and they stared at each other until one student, a Muslim girl wearing hijab named Sherry, got up and started dancing. And she danced alone for a few minutes until a Jewish boy named Sam got up and started dancing with her and found the courage. And they danced and he spun her. And then their friends got up and started dancing with them. A beautiful thing came out of these two different spaces working together in service. We came back to campus and there were of course protests, pro-Palestinian pro-Israeli protests, and the students were on their sides. But when they would see old friends from the trip, they would break out and give each other hugs.

It's been almost 20 years and after the pain that the Holy Land has experienced, again, my campus is seeing protests. And they're just a few students who are trying to reach out, who are trying to find someone to talk to. So I sent an email earlier this month to the old group of students who went to New Orleans. I said, "I need you. Would you come back to campus to show these kids how to dance?" And honestly, one by one, they wrote back and said, "I don't know, maybe too much time has passed. Maybe it's too hard right now." Sam and Sherry both wrote back with impassioned testimonies about where they are right now. And then one of the students, Jonathan wrote and said, I don't know if too much time has passed, but if the work and service we did 20 years ago worked back then, if the dancing we did in that club back then pulled us together, then I, for one, am willing to try. It's moving me to wanna try to dance again too, and ultimately, this is what I wanna invite all of you to do. It's easier to sit on one side. It's easier to sit and not wanna get up and dance, but coming here on this holy ground where the first steps were taken, I wonder if you all will find the courage to step out onto the dance floor and to dance with those who are our enemies. Thank you.

Thank you.

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